Lately I feel like I’m being tested at the beginning of new work weeks. This Monday I woke to an email from my dear friend Vianne, prompted by the Frittata incident of last Monday. As part of sharing some information about perfectionism with me, Vianne ended up temporarily knocking me off balance with this message:
Since I’ve watched you take on dance, Tracey [Anderson workouts], ChaLEAN, writing, cleansing, yoga and now the [vegetarian] diet with such unaltered diligence, I wonder if finding the right passion is really your only quest. Maybe a scientific understanding of what makes your mind obsess about the need for control and perfectionism will help in some way. I tell you this because I want [you] to find peace in 2012 and just BE, whatever that is at any particular moment of any particular day. Even if that means you don’t wake up to do your yoga, that you eat a pint of ice cream twice in one day, or that you decide to fart in public.
I think what really triggered me here was the phrase “unaltered diligence”. See, when friends, colleagues, or acquaintances ask about my vegetarian experiment, hear about my morning routine (which I’ll blog about in the future), or express interest in my latest exercise craze, they either seem impressed with my discipline and willpower, or imply I’m being overly restrictive. Based on my initially strong reaction to Vianne’s email and my known tendencies toward perfectionism and control, I felt the need to step back and ask how others’ perceptions could potentially teach me something about myself.
Reasons to Trust Myself
A few summers ago, I spent some time identifying my personal values–the qualities of life that made me feel truly fulfilled when at work or at home. After sitting quietly with the question Vianne prompted and listening to how my body responded, I realized three of my five personal values were very relevant:
- Self improvement
- Quality “me time”
Whether by nature or nurture, I’m one of those people who’s always looking to change and grow in a positive direction. I think I have much to learn about myself and about living in the world, so I try new things to see whether they fit and will help me better navigate life. I enjoy challenging my assumptions and pushing my limits, both physically and mentally. An introvert by nature, I also love spending time alone, reflecting on where I’ve been and thinking about where I’d like to go. So while my behavior may sometimes appear as extreme diligence, I do these activities and experiments because I actually feel energized by them. Deep down, I know I don’t do them to be perfect for someone else; even when they don’t turn out exactly as I expected, they just make me feel really good!
Because of inconsistencies across people, and because everyone has a lens through which they interpret reality, I’ve also learned to not take others’ perceptions of me at face value. At the same time I received Vianne’s email, for example, I received one from another friend that conveyed a seemingly opposite message–saying how happy and content I was given my increased interest in my physical, emotional, mental and spiritual health. Over the course of the week, I also recalled an experience I had last summer when I got my tattoo. Expressing some nervousness to my close friend Paige days before the procedure, she very strongly encouraged me to rethink my plan. I remember being surprised at her reaction, and much like Vianne’s email, it prompted some serious questioning of my motivations to see if I was missing something important. But Paige’s reaction when she accompanied me to the tattoo parlor (where she was so uncomfortable she couldn’t stay) made me realize that her response was probably more about her own stuff than about me.
Reasons to Listen to Other People
On the flip side, I’ve received similar messages over the years from several people: when my boss told me to do 20% less (can you imagine?); when my dance instructor told me to relax my arm (when I thought I was already relaxed!); and when my nutritionist advised me to stop tracking my calories, exercise, and weight. I do tend to get overly excited about trying new things, and can get into rhythms that reduce my ability to be flexible and spontaneous. While I’m doing it less and less lately, my actual lack of perfection at “unaltered diligence” also sometimes makes me beat myself up a bit. And although I don’t have any desire to eat pints of ice cream or fart in public, I could easily down half a bar of 70% dark chocolate from time to time!
Reasons to Do Both
After wrestling with this over the past week, I’ve decided that like most other things in life, learning when to trust yourself vs. take seriously what others think or say about how you’re living your life is all about finding balance.
Here’s an example: when I first started working on my book, I set aside two hours each Saturday and Sunday with the intent of working through my outline. My dedication to this effort left me feeling anxious (until I got to it), resentful (because I’d often rather be doing something else), and frustrated (when I couldn’t “be creative” during my allotted time). Now, I work on my book during the same 15 minutes every weekday morning. I can understand how this might appear overly rigid to most people, but doing it this way makes me feel good because it fits into my most creative time, allows me to make progress, makes me eager to do more the next day, and keeps my weekends free. Creating this structure has been a positive experience, and ironically has given me more flexibility.
I think it’s good to pause, question and be curious about why you’re really doing something to make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons. If you ask yourself the difficult questions and still feel at peace in your mind, heart, and body, you can trust your inner compass to keep you balanced regardless of how others might perceive your actions. Conversely, other people’s comments can bring to light ways you may be harming yourself or holding yourself back that you may not initially be able to see. They can be a powerful signal that you should consider making some adjustments. So pay attention, and whenever you’re feeling triggered by someone else’s impressions or feedback, check in with yourself and really do the soul searching work because regardless of the outcome, the thought process will always be beneficial.